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You get what you pay for; Extinction under glass

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
September 5, 2001


I've learned that real civilization lives in harmony with its environment. By that standard we are not civilized. We are not even intelligent. — Sting

Gorillas in Cleveland are as disturbing as Gorillas in Barcelona, and for always the same reason. Sure, they may be better fed, and have fancier cages in America, but that's hardly the issue. A cage is a cage. It always blows my mind to see a silverback gorilla confined to a space smaller than my front yard. These once majestic animals, now nothing more than biological sideshows, sit idle with a sad silent stare. So far removed from the jungles of central Africa, these sentient animals slowly perish from lack of context and mind numbing boredom. You can see it in their eyes.

When traveling, I always make it a point to visit the local Zoo. It's not that I enjoy Zoos, quite the contrary. My reason for frequenting these collections of incarcerated animals is to take notice of the decline. The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo was no different. Nestled in a shallow valley, this small ark was little more than a municipal menagerie, more diversion than an educational experience. And yes, McDonalds was the first thing I saw when I entered the gate. This was Ohio after all.

Fleeing the smell of the French fries, we immediately came upon three elephants. The eldest was gently rocking back and forth as if to some unheard music, in a space of less than an acre of turf. The rocking elephant had broken tusks which made me think this repetitive motion disorder was not new. I'm not sure what is more unnerving the empty stares or the rocking motion, neither denote mental health.

Pausing only long enough to mark the injustice of tethered animals to unnaturally small spaces, we left the elephants to be confronted by a single Nile hippopotamus. Partially submerged in what appeared to be a suburban swimming pool, the hippo seemed completely unfazed by the dead mouse floating beside it. Next door was a pygmy hippo in a smaller pool, but without the dead mouse. I should note that the pygmy hippo seemed unfazed by not having a drowned mouse for a companion. Such is the way of the world.

Next up on our "look at what we are losing tour," was the Australian Adventure. Shortly after passing through a Victorian train depot, we came to a petting station with the pelts of kangaroos, wallabies, and what could have been a rabbit. This brightly colored "educational" kiosk, was actually a battered outback vehicle, which brought to mind the image of a snake oil peddler. This truck was parked in between kangaroos and wallabies that were actually alive. I quess allowing visitors to pet the pelts prevented those same visitors from rushing the marsupials for a quick feel.

Next we came to Kookaburra sheeping station, again built to resemble a working farm of a hundred years ago. The Reinberger Homestead was used for education as it came complete with an animatronic koala and kookaburra , escaping from the Tiki Lounge at Disneyland. The barn housed a petting zoo where children could pet domestic goats, donkeys, and a miniature horse. The sheep where kept outside just behind the camel ride. It was all very surreal.

Next to the homestead was a huge tree house decorated in Mad Max style. The suspension bridge leading to the dead Yagga tree was a gift from the Fifth Third bank of Ohio. Tucked away in this tree were a carpet python, a Kowari, a frilled lizard, and a marine toad. The was also a serpent slide representing the aboriginal creation myth, and an animatronic crocodile named Salty Bill. Again, very surreal.

Like the San Diego Zoo, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has a primate mesa. Here, however, the primates live like bank tellers. Safely kept behind glass, in air conditioned cubicles, these animals lounge about waiting for a reprieve. The chimpanzees had the luxury of shredded paper to play with. Not only were the primates housed here so too were cloud leopards, snow leopards, and a aquarium the size of an average sushi bar. The six sharks swam in a tank no bigger than a walk in freezer.

The orangutan in the rainforest exhibit. Huddled against the glass, wrapping himself in burlap as if to hide. With a look, as much an accusation as surrender, a seemingly middle aged male stare out from beneath its blanket, while chewing a piece of plastic. The enclosure resembled a deforested Borneo, kind of like Orangutans in the clear cut . No semblance of jungle here, which is rather fitting considering that natural habitat of orangutans, is being cleared for palm oil plantations and gold mining.

A zoo representing the actual plight of endangered species is a totally punk concept. From the disturbed ranch lands of the Australian outback, to the clear cuts of Indonesia, and the shrinking mist habitats of Africa, the Cleveland Zoo pulls no punches in showing us how far we have come.

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